They’re in. It wasn’t easy though. In fact, many Winnipeggers suffered heart attacks in the process but the Winnipeg Jets clinched their first playoff berth since the franchise arrived from Atlanta in 2011. Even though the Jets lost in a nerve-wracking shootout to the Colorado Avalanche, the Calgary Flames did the Jets a huge favour moments later by defeating the Los Angeles Kings 3-1 to eliminate the defending Stanley Cup champions.
That wait for the Flames game to end seemed like an eternity for Jets fans, but that was nothing compared to the 19-year wait for the Jets faithful to see postseason hockey in the Manitoba capital.
Let’s go back to April 28, 1996. The last time Winnipeg hosted a playoff game. The mighty Detroit Red Wings held a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference quarterfinal series. In Game 5, Nikolai Khabiboulin came up with an incredible 51 save performance to keep the Jets alive.
When the Jets stepped on the ice for Game 6 at the old Winnipeg Arena (RIP), the crowd was rabid but there was a sense of dread that this could be the end. The Red Wings made sure the funeral would happen early on by scoring three times in the first period, en route to a 4-1 win to eliminate the Jets.
But it wasn’t just the end of a Stanley Cup dream, it was the end of the franchise as the 1.0 version of the Jets who flew off to the desert to become the
Phoenix Arizona Coyotes.
The fans inside the Winnipeg Arena stood and applauded their heroes for one last time. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Some didn’t want to believe it was over. Others stayed for over two hours after the game, sobbing in their seats. I was there and I was numb knowing that the end was near, but still wasn’t fully prepared for the end. I still remember the feeling of emptiness as I shuffled out of the old barn on Maroons Road. Not even the numerous rye and cokes afterwards could drown my sorrows.
Winnipeg watched as other Canadian cities went wild in the spring over the years. We watched with envy as Calgary went on an incredible run in 2004 that gave way to the Red Mile. When Edmonton went on a magical playoff ride in 2006, some older Jets fans (myself included) were reminded of the 1980s when the Oilers broke the Jets hearts year after year after year. There was more jealousy when Ottawa reached the Finals in 2007. Meanwhile, Winnipeg was begging to be invited into the party but were kept behind the velvet rope while the beautiful people received VIP passes.
The vibe changed in 2011 during Vancouver’s run to the Finals. It was during the Canucks push when the announcement came that True North Sports & Entertainment purchased the Atlanta Thrashers and they were being relocated to Winnipeg. The city erupted in wild celebrations akin to the other Canadian cities when they were pursuing the Cup.
The first three seasons saw the repackaged Jets tease the fans with close calls in the regular season, only to fall just short of the playoff line. Some of the faithful were starting to get impatient. They desperately wanted to see playoff hockey again. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff stayed true to his patient draft and develop approach while making key moves along the way.
Draft picks such as Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba and Adam Lowry were beginning to make their mark in the NHL.
Meanwhile, the free agent signing of Mathieu Perrault combined with the blockbuster trade that sent Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian to Buffalo for Tyler Myers and Drew Stafford signalled that the Jets were ready to take the next step.
It paid off this season. The Jets finally crossed the playoff line. It touched off a celebration 19 years in the making. Fans flocked to the iconic corner of Portage & Main to revel in the feeling.
That celebration will be nothing compared to April, 20 when the Anaheim Ducks roll into town for Game 3. White noise will shake the foundations of the MTS Centre. If the Jets can make a miracle run, Portage & Main will become party central in Canada. Get ready, it will be one of the most emotional scenes in recent memory.